Monday, November 03, 2003

Apocalypse Nano

From the anti-Jewish blood libels of the Old World to the modern mythology of tainted Halloween candy in the New, public hysteria usually begins with the idea that unseen forces are conspiring to poison us or kill our children.

This article in Resurgence magazine, The Heart of Darkness: Small is not always beautiful, is such a perfect example of how the misrepresentations, distortions and half-truths that I've outlined previously on this blog are all coalescing into anti-nano dogma. Just when I start thinking that perhaps I place too much importance on public perception, I read something like this to affirm that I'm on the right track here. Even forgetting for a moment my sense of outrage as a journalist as I watch repeated distortions and assumptions morph their way into established truths, as an amateur student of historical trends it's fascinating to watch the process happen.

I don't mean to pick on these authors, Lee-Anne Broadhead and Sean Howard. I'm sure they're very committed and knowledgeable people and I could have found a number of these types of articles at random, but this one struck me as fairly all-encompassing, so I decided to pick it apart a bit.

    The key to this minuscule music of the spheres is self-replication: atoms capable of reproducing themselves, building themselves up 'block by block' into whatever form we, the Masters, choose - supermaterials, superorgans or supercells, supercomputers, etc.
As I've written before, if self-replication is indeed the "key," government and industry are certainly not engaging in any grand consipiracy to grind it out. In fact, both sectors are falling all over themselves to assure the public that self-replication on the scale outlined above is nothing but a load of Crichton.
    The end of the natural world is, incredibly, the explicit, celebrated goal of much pro-nanotechnology literature and propaganda.
That's a new one to me. I must have missed that memo from Nanoconspiracy Central. If these authors are talking about attempts to end such natural phenomena as famine, drought and disease, then, yes, I'm one of those propagandists.
    A debate over the promise and perils of the atomic-engineering revolution has been going on for some time now, but until Prince Charles's timely and astute intervention in April 2003 the discussion was conducted away from the glare of the mainstream media and thus popular consciousness.
That's a new take on the old tale. In this version, Chuck saves the Earth. I'm surprised that the authors did not give the ETC Group credit for its role in bringing the nanothreat to his royal attention. What they gave him was a report that purported to tell of the dangers of nanomaterials in the environment but, as I've written before, was in fact a series of incomplete surveys of inconclusive toxicology reports, commissioned by ETC Group, itself.
    THE LACK OF public scrutiny of this fundamental new scientific direction is upsetting for a number of reasons ...
I hope the authors are joking here. If not, then they must be purposely clapping their hands over their ears and making humming noises. Nanotechnology, as readers of this site have seen over the past few months, is likely to become one of the most publicly scrutinized sciences since the invention of the brassiere.
    Eager to point to the potential benefits of this latest attempt to manipulate matter in the aid of human 'progress', the scientists involved in this research see no reason for public participation in any debate about their chosen projects. What, after all, could there be to discuss? For the celebrants of this new conjunction of biology, physics, chemistry, information technology and artificial intelligence, this is all a self-evidently positive step forward. Their message is quite clear: leave it to the experts and wait for the benefits to flow.
I'm not certain which scientists these authors interviewed to reach this conclusion, but the ones I've spoken to are eager for public participation in debate about their chosen projects, yet the problem is many of them lack the ability to translate the science into commonly understood terms.
    Some sceptical scientists, for example, are warning about the possibility that in creating tiny nanoprobes to deliver drugs more precisely, we could be creating the 'next asbestos' ...
Like an urban legend, I've heard variations of this "next asbestos" comment, and as near as I can tell it was said by only one scientist in the context of nanotubes being used in tires. The scientist, Mark Wiesner of Rice University, made the "asbestos" comment as a kind of challenge to his fellow scientists and to applaud the EPA's willingness to deal openly with nanotech's unknowns. You can read the full context of Wiesner's comments in this Small Times report from March 8, 2002. Then, the "sliced bread/asbestos" comment was picked up again by Newsweek in an article that I consulted on (see this blog entry), and thus remained a permanent part of the Google firmament, picked up and pasted into any one of a number of nanotech articles.
    Indeed, listening to the charge of Drexler and Sainsbury towards the Brave New Nanoworld, one sometimes wonders which century the world just, barely, lived through - surely not the century of chemical, biological and nuclear warfare, global warming, acid rain and Frankenfoods?
I haven't spoken to Lord Sainsbury, so I can't answer for him, but had these writers spoken to Drexler or even delved a tiny bit into his writings they would see that he has spent much of the past couple of decades, sometimes to the detriment of this own reputation, warning the world to think about what it's doing as it launches its full charge into the nano future.

There is more, but I'll stop here for now. You get the idea. It's obvious that in this initial phase of public discussion, the thoughtful ones are not controlling the agenda. But those who follow trends in scientific progress and social change tell me that this deliberate spreading of misinformation is "textbook." Over time, the truth will prevail. It could be years, it could be centuries.


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